Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

yearofwondersYear of Wonders tells the story of Anna, a servant to a pastor, and how she emotionally and physically survives the plague while the majority of her village falls ill around her.

I was enthralled. I listened to the audiobook on my daily commute and it was fantastic.

You get the very real drama of life in a small village mixed with the the despair that must have accompanied the plague. There’s finger-pointing, people taking advantage of other’s need and, above all, the need to rationalize why all of the deaths were occurring.

My favorite part of this book was when Anna stopped in the middle of her hectic life to reconsider how she viewed God. She uses common sense reasoning to pick apart why a deity would allow such tragedy to occur and then wonders why the young are taken rather than the old.

She comes to the conclusion that what’s happening is a biological thing rather than a divine thing. Then, once she has that straight in her mind, she’s better equipped to handle everybody else’s irrational responses to the plague without being bogged down by her own.

Anna is a great heroine. She has her flaws- a flirtation with opium addiction to dull her grief and a crush on someone else’s husband- but she tries to be a good person. Mainly, she’s just overwhelmed by what’s going on and wants to feel loved and safe.

She cares for the ill, helps an orphaned child hold on to her family’s lead mine and tries to help her village keep body and soul together.

The ending of Year of Wonders was incredibly shocking to me, but in a good way. Geraldine Brooks stayed true to her characters but took the story in such an unexpected direction, that I had to turn it off for awhile to absorb what I had just heard.

Highly recommended for book clubs or people who love historical fiction. Year of Wonders is wonderous indeed.

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Remodelista: The Organized Home by Julie Carlson

Remodelista: The Organized Home by Julie Carlson

remodelistaRemodelista is another de-cluttering book. This one encourages readers to utilize storage containers made out of natural materials, to hang items in unexpected places and to make your space functional and beautiful.

Maybe I’ve reached my limit on these types of books. For example, I loved The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up, but that was one of the first books of this kind that I read.

I know not everyone responds well to Marie Kondo’s philosophy of considering the spirit of your stuff, but that clicked with me, for whatever reason. Must be a hippie thing.

I thought this one was a bit ridiculous. It just wouldn’t work for me in my real life with my crazy pets, busy family and serious amounts of stuff.

My main problem with this one is illustrated quite clearly on the cover. We’ve got two brooms, a towel, an umbrella, some string and a large bucket hung right over a cat drinking from a water bowl.

I can think of a hundred reasons why that wouldn’t work for me, but let’s start with three:

First of all, the kitties would think I was trying to kill them- hanging menacing items over the watering hole. And, let’s be honest, with my poor hanging-things-up skill, it just might.

Second, putting string high up but visible is inviting a kitty disaster. They would hunt the heck out of that string, probably using the umbrella as a climbing wall to get to it, destroying my artfully arranged buckets and mops in the process.

Third, where would I put the rest of my family’s entryway stuff? We’ve got a lot more than that in just umbrellas, not even counting the brooms, swiffer mops, you-name-it.

The result: easy-to-maintain spaces that are both orderly and artful, personal and purposeful. Because, ultimately, the goal isn’t a flawless, impossible-to-maintain showcase. The aim is an unencumbered life in a house that makes you happy.” pg 9.

All of the rooms and cabinets in this book had like three things in them. It’s just not realistic.

That being said, I did like the “Daily Rituals” on pg 18. The authors included “seven simple habits” to adopt every day to make your life easier. They include activities like making your bed and opening the mail.

I can handle that.

I also liked the ‘Herb and Spice Drawer’ suggestion on page 70. My spices are a jumble of bottles and sizes and it’s nearly impossible to find anything quickly.

The authors suggest storing herbs and spices in: “Uniform glass jars- we like small paint jars from the art supply store.”Then, label the tops. It’s a simple solution but one that never occurred to me.

Only recommended for people who have calm cats and very few items. Other than the suggestions mentioned, I can’t see myself using very many of the tips from Remodelista.

Thanks for reading!

The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir by Maude Julien

The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir by Maude Julien

onlygirlThe Only Girl in the World is an extraordinary memoir about madness, control and the survival of horrific childhood abuse.

Maude Julien’s father Louis chose his future wife and mother of his child, Jeannine, when she was only six and he was 34. He became Jeannine’s guardian by promising her family that he would provide her with a quality education.

Then: “Twenty-two years after he took possession of Jeannine, Louis Didier decided the time had come for her to bring his daughter into the world… Louis Didier liquidated his assets, bought a house near Cassel, between Lille and Dunkirk, and withdrew to live there… to devote himself entirely to carrying out the project he had devised back in 1936: to make his child a superhuman being. That child was me.” loc 73, ebook.

Unfortunately, to “make his child a superhuman” involved leaving her alone in a dark, rat-infested basement, sleeping in a room without heat, eating stale bread, practicing music for 12 or more hours a day and being entirely separated from any other children her age.

That’s where Maude got the title of this memoir: The Only Girl in the World

I have not read a childhood account this disturbing since A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer.

Maude’s father was unhinged. “My father is convinced that the mind can achieve anything. Absolutely anything: it can overcome every danger and conquer every obstacle. But to do this requires long, rigorous training away from the impurities of this dirty world.” loc 247, ebook.

He asks Maude to do things he cannot do like perform somersaults or swim in freezing water. He shows no affection to either his child or his wife.

Louis makes the females of the house wait on him as if he is an invalid. He makes his child hold a chamber pot each morning while he empties his bladder.

He’s a controlling monster.

Louis has strange beliefs about water and soap removing the body’s immunities so he insists that Maude only bathes once a week or less. And, when she is finally given the opportunity to bathe, she must use his dirty bathwater to “take strength from him.”

And she can’t count on protection from her mother, who was groomed by Louis to do anything he asks of her. Jeannine actually blames Maude for Louis taking them to live in the middle of nowhere. It is very sad.

Maude’s only friends are her pets, whom her father abuses as much as he hurts Maude. “Can an animal teach a person about happiness? In the depth of my despair, I am fortunate to have this incredible source of joy.” loc 685, ebook.

Even worse, Maude is abused by the few adults Louis allows in their lives. (Trigger warnings for those who were sexually or physically abused as children.)

Though incredibly disturbing, The Only Girl in the World is ultimately a story of survival against all odds. The human spirit is incredibly resilient as Maude’s tale illustrates.

Perhaps she is more superhuman than even she realizes. Highly recommended.

Thank you to NetGalley for a free digital copy of this book.

Thank you for reading!

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

Living Oprah: My One-Year Experiment to Live as TV’s Most Influential Guru Advises by Robyn Okrant

livingoprahLiving Oprah is Robyn Okrant’s account of how she spent one year conscientiously following the advice Oprah dishes out to millions of women across America.

If Oprah said to read a book or watch a film, Robyn did it. If she advised de-cluttering, new make-up tips or relationship work, Robyn was on-board.

For the most part, I enjoyed this quirky book, but I also found it to be slightly repetitive- similar to what Robyn found following Oprah to be after a few months.

She starts out with high hopes: “Could Oprah’s guidance truly lead a woman to her ‘best life,’ or would it fail miserable? Is it even possible to follow someone else’s advice to discover one’s authentic self?” pg 4.

We all discover the answer to be no. But, Robyn gives it a good run because: “It’s vitally important for women to question the sources of influence and persuasion in our lives. We are inundated with get rich/get thin/get married suggestions every time we turn on the TV or walk by the magazine rack. And sadly, we tend to judge ourselves against seemingly impossible standards.” pg 11.

I liked her thought process throughout the year. I also thought her reasoning for doing the experiment was excellent: “One of the reasons I was drawn to Oprah as a subject for this project was my continual search for new ways to manage my pain, keep my self-esteem from faltering, and ease the stress and fear associated with scoliosis.” pg 36. In some ways, Robyn was sort of Oprah’s target audience.

My favorite part of this book was when Robyn was trying to follow Oprah’s advice to read Eckert Tolle’s A New Earth and live by its precepts, while still engaging in the consumerism and self improvement programs Oprah touts on her program each week.

“It’s also uncomfortable to enjoy a celebrity lovefest on Oprah after I’ve spent an hour competing my reading assignment for A New Earth. Oprah’s Book Club selection focuses on separating ourselves from our ego and learning to connect with people on an authentic level rather than a superficial one. I don’t see how a segment on the show glamorizing Mariah Carey’s lingerie closet supports the work Oprah’s asked us to do.” pg 72.

Robyn comes to the conclusion that if Oprah’s viewers followed all of Oprah’s advice, they quickly wouldn’t need her anymore to live their best lives. Part of Oprah’s draw is that she has viewers convinced there’s always something more to be improved upon, tweaked, de-cluttered or examined.

It is a never-ending process of evolution. That is why Oprah’s built her empire and also why women don’t stop watching.

And sometimes it’s the promise of ‘infotainment’ that keeps viewers coming back: “Oprah frequently reminds her guests and audience that her tell-all shows are not pulp entertainment, they are for our education. I do take her warning to heart but think that if this is something we must constantly be reminded about, maybe a different format is in order.” pg 57-58

I’ve never been a huge watcher of Oprah (or any tv for that matter), but I still enjoyed this book for it’s honest examination of hero worship, popular culture and the self improvement industry. I think Oprah viewers may enjoy this book even more.

Thanks for reading!

I Was a Child by Bruce Eric Kaplan

I Was a Child by Bruce Eric Kaplan

iwasachildI Was a Child is Bruce Eric Kaplan’s (BEK) memoir and is written in a stream-of-consciousness style with small, hand-drawn cartoons interspersed throughout the text. Each blurb is a recollection of an event, time, television show, piece of furniture in the house, anything and everything from BEK’s childhood.

I’m not familiar with BEK’s work but his bio talks about his cartoons appearing in The New Yorker. I can see why he’s so popular.

The drawings are simple but somehow manage to convey a great depth of emotion and meaning.

They reminded me of the small drawings in Roald Dahl‘s books. I looked up the illustrator for those and Google tells me it’s Quentin Blake.

Both share a sparse, black-line look with no color to bright up the design. However, there’s something very powerful about the pictures… it’s hard to describe.

I Was A Child may be a book that one has to read to really experience what it’s all about.

I’m not as old as the author, but I connected with many of his memories because, despite what other people may tell you, we were all children once.

This memoir is quite unique but if you like it, you may want to try Today is the Last Day of the Rest of Your Life. It is more of a graphic novel than this, but it is also a memoir about growing up and change that is drawn with simplistic black and white panels.

I received a free advanced reader’s copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads. FTC guidelines: check!

Thanks for reading!

How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness by Karen Salmansohn

How to Be Happy, Dammit: A Cynic’s Guide to Spiritual Happiness by Karen Salmansohn

howtobehappyHow to Be Happy, Dammit is a succinct, brightly colored treatise on enlightenment. Coming in around 230 pages with only a few words per page, this is a book that can be read over the course of a lunch hour or *ahem* during other short breaks in your life on a porcelain throne.

It doesn’t use an abundance of coarse language (see title), but it does utilize a few words to get the point across.

The book is broken down into short life lessons that feed into the next. “Life Lesson 1: Pain exists. Life can hurt. Like a lot. Even when you’re good, you can get whacked. Without apology. Without explanation.” pgs 14-15.

That’s the life lesson about being born. Can’t really argue with that.

My child was born wailing before she was even entirely out. I was wailing too, for different reasons of course, but life can hurt. No doubt.

I found meaning in “Life Lesson 6: Never go shopping for kiwis in a shoe store. Some people just don’t have what you need. So why waste time, banging on their doors, ringing their bells, demanding service?” pgs 38-39. I think I’m still learning that one.

“Life Lesson 19: This is a world of duality: of good and bad, yin and yang, decaffeinated and caffeinated. So you must always be prepared!” pg 112. Decaffeinated? Poor souls…

In the chapter on self-programming, we get this wisdom: Life Lesson 27: The world is your mirror.” pg 174.

I don’t think folks realize that either.

Recommended for people who are interested in spirituality, but don’t necessarily have a lot of time or patience for more touchy-feely books. How to Be Happy, Dammit delivers on its title. Now let’s all go be happy. Dammit. 🙂

Thanks for reading!

Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick

Vivaldi’s Virgins by Barbara Quick

vivaldiVivaldi’s Virgins is a sparkling historical fiction about Anna Maria dal Violin, one of the orphans trained to perform music for the well-fare of the souls of Venice in the 1700’s.

One of her instructors is Antonio Vivaldi, who is called “The Red Priest” because of his fiery hair: “I heard and then watched Maestro Vivaldi climb the stairs. He has been my teacher- and one of the very few men who has ever seen my face or spoken to me- for nearly half of my lifetime. I was only a girl of eight when, newly ordained as a priest, Antonio Vivaldi, native son of Venezia, was hired by the governors of the Pieta to be our master of the violin.” pg 2

Only girls are allowed to perform music in the Pieta. They are kept separate from the general population and all men, except for the priests who are their instructors, to maintain their purity. “Our lives are arranged so that every piece of every day and night is fit together into an intricate mosaic of music and study and prayer. But it is only a counterfeit of real life. We have no more reality in the world than the trompe l’oeil floor tiles of the church have depth or height.” pg 85

There is drama among the children through their interactions and competition with each other and some of their instructors, who are either nuns or priests. “Whoever says that girls are kind has never lived among them.” pg 13.

Anna longs to know who her family was, but that is a secret kept by the nuns who watch over the children. She spends much of her time trying to figure out how to learn more about who her family may be.

Anna also strains against the restrictions placed on her because of her gender in the 1700’s. The government only allows the female musicians from the Pieta to perform in public if they remain in the cloister. If they choose to marry, they have to sign a contract to promise not to perform or pay an exorbitant amount of money to the orphanage to pay for their childhood musical education. “It is one of the great injustices of this fair city. And it has made me dream sometimes of other cities- of London and Paris and Vienna, where, I’ve heard, female instrumentalists have actually been welcomed, from time to time, on the performance stage.” pgs 145-146.

During these struggles, Anna forms true friendships with other foundlings in the Pieta. “When I think of who my companions will be in Hell, I feel rather glad that I will be going there. It will be filled with those I most well and truly loved.” pg 150

I learned a lot about 18th century Venice in this book and Vivaldi. All that I knew about Vivaldi, before reading this book, was that he liked to use a bunch of stringed instruments in his compositions.

It makes so much more sense when I discovered who it was he had been composing for.

Recommended for those who enjoy historical fiction, books about composers or stories about troubled childhoods.

Thanks for reading!